Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is currently showing Jack Heifner's Patio/Porch, two one-act plays meant to be an evening's double bill.
Familiar territory here -- two sets of Southern women: sisters in Patio and mother/daughter in Porch -- along with stereotypes that could be too predictable were it not for the truthfulness of the WOBT performances.
William Harper directs with an understanding of the nuances of character and situation and an affection for these women: in Patio, Pearl's [Dana M. Smith] neat-freak and very proper Better Homes and Gardens behavior is balanced by Jewel's [Michelle Johns] seeming devil may care attitude; in Porch, Lucille [Cindy Beasley] is submissively patient with her mother Dot's [Margaret White] outspoken and often outrageous statements.
In lesser hands, this could have been yet another foray into the cliches of Southern womanhood; but here -- and Heifner's script clearly suggests a lot below the surface of its witty dialogue -- the everyday concerns of sibling rivalry [Patio] and the of the onset of dementia in a parent [Porch], and the steadfastness of the women involved emerge gradually, catching audiences mid-laugh with insights and concerns we all can identify with and care about.
In Patio, Ms. Johns' brash look and manner appears to be mere stereotypical of every other "cosmetologist" in the realm of Southern plays: "Ruin a woman's hair and you've got a customer for life...She's dependent on you", she quips; and Ms. Johns can deliver such lines with aplomb. But Jewel is more than that; she too has dreams of a better life, and some guilt for having loved her sister's husband at a distance. Ms. Smith's Pearl is the epitome of a woman for whom "appearance means everything", and though she is misunderstood by everyone, her home -- "a museum" according to Jewel -- is a refuge from a disappointing marriage. And we can't help but feel for her. -- Together, these two actresses become "two gems: a jewel and a pearl".
Porch depicts what appears to be yet another humdrum day in the lives of mother and daughter, a day that has been endlessly repeated. Ms. Beasley exercises a lot of control as she submits to Ms. White's disjointed monologue that gradually shows the deterioration of her mind; seemingly random ideas show an internal train of thought not easily detected. A tour-de-force performance by Ms. White provides most of the laughs here, but it does not diminish Ms. Beasley's character. They work so well together, that we see that interdependence is the real cement of the relationship.
In both plays, the characters need one another and are tied together by blood; too often important matters remain unspoken for so long that it becomes increasingly difficult to express them without either lashing out or making a joke. The truth is often hard to bear, bit these Southern women [and the actresses playing them] make it work.